My friend Dave and I have a unique connection. Both of us work with young men in the effort to build more inclusive, less violent understandings of masculinity. As a former sexual assault survivor’s advocate and someone who travels the country to talk to young people about healthy sexuality (among other subjects), I value the opportunity to talk to men like Dave, who regularly works with middle school or high school boys and men to re-envision masculinity. I was anxious to get Dave’s opinion about a controversial subject I’ve been mulling over for a while: the oft-cited Lisak & Miller 2002 study.
Me: “Do you think it’s possible that 96% of rape is committed by 4-8% of men?”
Dave: “It just doesn’t seem possible! Nearly every single man is brought up in a culture where we are taught to objectify, speak disrespectfully about, and sexualize women. I, like many young men, learned about sex from porn and locker room culture. How can someone be conditioned in this way and not be a risk for committing sexual violence? We are not taught how to have responsible, healthy sexual relationships! When I was young, I literally couldn’t conceive of a respectful sexual encounter because I had never seen one. Until I was mentored to understand a more non-violent masculinity, I very well could have hurt a woman in a way that we would describe as sexual violence, though no particular memory comes to mind. Until we teach young men how to understand sex through the lens of communication and non-violence, we won’t stop the problem of rape.”
Much has been said about the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and Predator Theory in general), particularly in the wake of the “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” piece at Good Men Project and the subsequent criticism, most notably over at Feministe. In particular, many have argued that it’s impossible for someone to commit rape without setting out or intending to do so because, in the words of David Lisak, “the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by serial offenders who, on average, have six victims. So, this is who’s doing it.” This has left me unsettled, so over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time reading and rereading the Lisak & Miller study and the work that uses it to extrapolate the number of men actually committing rape.
My conclusion? Lisak & Miller and all of the studies they cite (as well as the McWhorter study cited in the phenomenal piece by Thomas Macaulay Millar at Yes Means Yes) are vitally important for understanding and isolating the “undetected rapists” who are committing a tremendous number of rapes. As Millar points out, “We need to revoke the rapists’ social license to operate.” We must change the culture of our social spaces, our parties, our relationships (particularly men’s relationships with men) so that those committing the kinds of rape discussed in the scholarship of Lisak & Miller have the rug pulled out from under them.
In the words of my friend Sara, a former career sexual violence prevention specialist and survivor’s advocate, “It’s really important to think about the historical significance of Lisak’s work. He was doing this work back when ‘date rape’ was a new word and the common belief was that rapists were in the same category as psychopaths and murderers. The idea that a seemingly ‘normal’ man would prey upon women in social settings was a BIG deal for people that worked in victim services. His study gave a voice to women who had been assaulted by men like the ones he interviewed and gave law enforcement a broader picture of who perpetrates rape. This was a big step in our understanding about the power and control dynamics of rape.”
That said, does the Lisak & Miller 2002 study (and similar research) describe all of sexual violence? No. Are there forms of sexual violence that are not and could not be captured by the study and the others that support its claims? Definitely. And to ignore this fact is tremendously dangerous, particularly if those who are adhering so closely to the findings of Lisak & Miller are the ones doing the daily, on-the-ground work to end sexual violence.
Limitations of Lisak & Miller 2002
“Several limitations of this study bear mention . . . Because of the nonrandom nature of the sampling procedures, the reported data cannot be interpreted as estimates of the prevalence of sexual or other acts of violence” (Lisak & Miller 2002).
Despite its importance in identifying the behavior and nature of pathological rapists, Lisak & Miller 2002 is tremendously limited in its scope. Because of its limitations, there are plenty of reasons to suggest that there are many more rapists and countless other forms of rape than are captured in the study. As such, to do as the authors of the study warn against and interpret the data as “estimates of the prevalence of sexual…violence” runs the risk of ignoring certain forms of sexual violence and silencing the voices of survivors of any violence that cannot be captured in the Lisak & Miller estimates.
When I first started digging into the results of Lisak & Miller, I wanted to make sure I was covering all bases, so I reached out to a research professional. I sent the study over to my cousin, a professor and research PhD at Texas State University. Though he agreed that the findings of the study are definitely important, he pointed out three flaws that must be considered as we look to extrapolate the results.
First, the study is likely to underestimate the real (a priori) rate of the sexual violence that Lisak & Miller set out to study because, no matter the precautions put in place including anonymity, there are some people who will not admit to committing a horrendous act like rape because of feelings of guilt. The vital implication of this flaw, then, is that there are likely even more men who commit the types of rape described in the questions of the study but who refuse to admit to anyone that they have done this. It’s scary to think that the numbers are likely even higher, but they are.
Second, the study was nonrandom, as it was done on one college campus over the course of time. Thus, it is hard to extrapolate that data in two ways. First, are the rates the same at other colleges? Higher? Lower? Is there something being done at this college that is not studied or understood that are affecting the rates reported in Lisak & Miller? Second, how can we assume that the rates of sexual violence found at this one institution of higher education would apply generally to the United States? Considering that only half of the U.S. completes any college at all, what does this data say about rates of sexual violence outside of the collegiate atmosphere, let alone the atmosphere of this one college? Again, this could mean that the results are actually higher or could be lower (though my personal biases suggest this is not the case). Either way, it is hard to use this data to make assumptions about the rates of sexual violence in society at large.
Third, and most importantly, anyone who wishes to study something scientifically (particularly if one hopes to be published in a peer-reviewed journal) must have specific, measurable criteria by which the study can be evaluated. In the case of Lisak & Miller, the criteria for measurement are found in the four questions that were asked to determine if a man taking their survey had committed rape:
- Have you ever been in a situation where you tried, but for various reasons did not succeed, in having sexual intercourse with an adult by using or threatening to use physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc.) if they did not cooperate?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse with someone, even though they did no want to, because they were too intoxicated (on alcohol or drugs) to resist your sexual advances (e.g., removing their clothes)?
- Have you ever had sexual intercourse with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
- Have you ever had oral sex with an adult when they didn’t want to because you used or threatened to use physical force (twisting their arm; holding them down, etc.) if they didn’t cooperate?
The criteria for rape in this study fall into three categories: threat of physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc), use of physical force (twisting their arm, holding them down, etc), or use of intoxicants or taking advantage of someone who is under the influence of intoxicants (alcohol or drugs) to attempt or complete “sexual intercourse” or “oral sex.”
But what of all the ways that sexual violence generally and rape specifically can happen that do not fit into this very specific understanding?
“Forcible Rape” and the Nature of Sexual Violence
In 2012, activists and advocates working to end sexual violence and to support survivors of sexual violence were outraged when congressional Republicans attempted to redefine rape in a way that only would refer to something known as “forcible rape.” They were doing so in order to further restrict the taxpayer funding of abortion under the Hyde Amendment, for if fewer women’s experiences of sexual assault could be called “rape” under federal law, fewer women were eligible for the Hyde Amendment’s exception of funds in the case of rape or incest. Activists (and anyone who is not an asshole) were furious because we know that all rapes are violent, all rapes are forcible, and that rapes occur in a myriad of ways that do not fit within the bounds of “forcible rape,” even if the violence against the survivor isn’t evidenced with bruises or other obvious injuries.
The use of the term “forcible rape” is nothing new. It was a part of the FBI’s definition of rape for a number of years, and it refers to a highly legalistic understanding of sexual violence, one that is more easily measured and quantified. Forcible rape most commonly refers to the use of traditional (though incredibly limited) understandings of violence (use of weapons, twisting of the arm, or holding someone down), threats of violence, or intoxicants to have sexual intercourse with someone who does not consent. Sound familiar? There is a reason that Lisak & Miller use a similar bar to measure violence in their study: it is easier to quantify!
For many years, I have worked formally and informally as a sexual assault survivor’s advocate, and I have heard many, many stories of sexual violence. I am humbled by the courage of those survivors who reach out to advocates and by those who can work as advocates full time. In some of the cases where survivors shared with me, they described situations that would likely have been reflected in the research of Lisak & Miller, stories where rapists got a woman drunk or dropped something in someone’s drink, stories where rapists held the survivor down or threatened further violence if they did not consent. It is for these survivors that I am thankful for Lisak & Miller’s research, for their description of the pathology of certain rapes will help us expose and stop the men who offend over and over.
However, many of the stories I heard would not likely have been captured in the Lisak & Miller study. They were stories of gradual wearing down of the survivor until she couldn’t say no any more. They were stories of partners who were so much used to the rhythms of sex with their partner that he or she didn’t (or chose not to) understand that the survivor’s body language said, “STOP” even though the survivor never uttered a word. They were stories of survivors violated by someone who touched them over or under their clothes, violating them with a hand, something many would not refer to as “sexual intercourse” or “oral sex.”
They were stories like Sabrina’s (name changed to protect the identity of the survivor and story retold with her permission). Sabrina recently shared her story with me after I posted the “Nice Guys Commit Rape Too” article on Facebook. She said,
I felt compelled to tell you that the article you posted from the Good Men Project about nice guys and rape was really helpful.
I’ve been searching for the words to confront someone that unknowingly raped me during college. It’s such a complicated situation, and I’ve always struggled with a way to explain to him that, while I didn’t physically stop him, me saying no and that I didn’t think it was a good idea makes what he did rape. It’s been years of thinking about this conversation and years of avoiding him in my life, knowing that finding a way to explain to him why what happened was rape would be very difficult, for him and for me.
Sabrina’s rapist did not use what we traditionally refer to as violence or threat of violence (though that does not make what he did any less violent). Her attacker didn’t use intoxicants (to my knowledge). Sabrina believes that he doesn’t believe what he did to be rape. Because of all of these things, he would not be captured in the Lisak & Miller study.
My point is that he is not unique. Sabrina’s story exposes the danger in relying so very heavily on the Lisak & Miller study, a danger in how we respond to and prevent other forms of sexual violence that are not reflected in the study.
First, if we say that, with rare exception, rapes are only committed by 4-8% of the population, by sociopaths who are using limited understandings of violence and coercion or who are using alcohol and drugs AND who acknowledge and understand that what they are doing is using force or intoxicants to get sex against the will of their victims, we run an incredible risk of silencing survivors whose experience of sexual violence didn’t look like this. We run the risk of communicating to them that their experience wasn’t as legitimate or worthy of our attention as the rapes described in the study’s questions. And the last thing our rape culture needs is one more person communicating (intentionally or not) to survivors that their experience isn’t violence or isn’t part of the “norm” or isn’t worthy of our prevention and response efforts. And when we focus too much on Lisak and Miller, that is something we risk.
Second, if use Lisak & Miller’s criteria, we miss the opportunity to prevent Sabrina’s rape and to prevent other forms of sexual violence.
There are forms of sexual violence that can never be quantified in a study because the tactics used are not measurable and specific enough to fall into legalistic descriptions like those used by Lisak & Miller. This is why it is so very difficult to get an accurate estimate of how many women (and men) experience sexual violence in our culture. There are perpetrators committing sexual violence who would never admit that what they are doing is violence, either because they are in denial wrapped up in guilt or because they truly do not believe or understand that what they did was violence, and there are survivors who would never describe what they experienced as sexual violence or rape because of what they’ve been taught sexual violence looks like.
As my friend Dave pointed out, men are taught from the earliest ages that “no” or “stop” simply is a way to play “hard to get.” Our society teaches us this in a variety of ways. One way that I can think of is how often my family members tickled me when I was young, and I screamed for them to stop, but they didn’t – something that is described as playful fun for many of us who experienced this. I learned from a young age that “No!” and “Stop!” don’t mean what they should mean, and I had to unlearn that! Men are steeped in the simulated violence of porn where consent is far from clear, and yet, in due time, the actors and actresses beg for more. Men are mentored by elders who degrade women in language and gesture in the locker room or in public. Movie after movie and man after man repeats the terrible myth that the way to “get lucky” is to buy a girl enough drinks that “no” isn’t an option.
All sorts of men believe this shit, not just 4-8% of men! For men in our society, patriarchal oppression is so very much a part of our socialization that it seems to be in our DNA, and when something is a part of our DNA, even if we do not cognitively identify as sexist or as a potential rapist, it takes constant vigilance not to realize our misogynistic socialization. I’m sorry, but there are just not enough men practicing this vigilance for me to believe that the vast majority of sexual violence is committed by a small percentage of men who Lisak describes as “the undetected rapist.” Acknowledging this does not and should not diminish the seriousness of sexual violence. Nor does it take away responsibility and blame, regardless of the perpetrators intent or views of whether or not the action was, in fact, violent.
How, then, can we expect that there aren’t a significant number of men who are committing sexual violence and aren’t recognizing it as such? These are men who truly believe that the sex they are having is consensual because of the messages they’ve received about consent their entire lives but who are actually harming people. Recognizing that this is at least a possibility, how can we prevent these men from committing sexual violence if we say that 96% of sexual violence is committed by sociopaths who know their partners didn’t want to have sex but forced sex anyway? And can we not hold these men accountable for their actions while also recognizing that their actions are a product of the terrible messages about sex, sexuality, and relationships into which all men are socialized?
Leaving aside distracting conversations about the meaning of “nice,” we need to understand that all sorts of men can and do commit rape. Some of them are sociopaths who commit multiple rapes as proven by Lisak & Miller, and perhaps those men commit the vast majority of rapes. However, what if we are wrong? What if the limitations of the Lisak & Miller study mean that a much larger percentage, perhaps 20% or 30%, of sexual violence is committed by men who really are unaware? What if there are men out there who are committing sexual violence (using force or coercion) but would never admit it in a survey? I am one person, but my experience as an advocate tells me that this type of sexual violence is more common than Lisak & Miller would have you believe.
I agree WHOLE-HEARTEDLY with Thomas Macaulay Millar when he says, “we need to adopt the stance that sexual interaction ought to always be had in a state of affirmative consent by all participants; that anything else is aberrant. If someone says, ‘I was sexually assaulted,’ the first question should be, ‘why was a person continuing with sexual activity when zir partner did not want to?’” What I am saying, though, is that this type of work, work that promotes healthy relationships and constant, clear communication as consent, does more than just make it more difficult for sociopaths who commit rape to hide in the shadows. It also helps to prevent the myriad of other forms of sexual violence that occur around us all the time while affirming the stories and experiences of survivors. And that, in my opinion, should be our goal.
To conclude, let me tell one more story from a brave survivor who has agreed to let me share her experience.
Jeri (name changed to protect the identity of the survivor) wasn’t sure if it was the best idea for her and her good friend to start dating. After perhaps a month of romantic and sexual involvement, she decided to break things off to preserve the friendship. She went over to his dorm to talk, and before she could say anything, he leaned in to kiss her. They started making out (she wasn’t sure why she participated, expressing that she was just trying to collect her thoughts and work up the gumption to tell him that she wanted things to end).
Things became more intimate, and Jeri wasn’t sure what to do. In that moment, she started crying because she didn’t want him to be touching her any more, but she didn’t know how to say, “Stop.” He was not checking in with her as he should have been. He began kissing and touching her more intimately, but then he looked up, saw she was crying, and stopped immediately. He was really apologetic, and she believes he felt terrible. They talked through things a bit, and she said she just didn’t want to see him in that context any more. Their friendship destroyed, and they didn’t talk much after that.
A few years later, after he had joined a program that helped him understand consent and sexual violence better, he asked her to meet. She was reulctant, but they met, and he told her that he was so incredibly sorry. He admitted that he had committed sexual violence, but he hadn’t even realized until that point exactly what he had done. He simply had thought of it as a miscommunication, but he now understood that he was at fault and that he had committed violence that had hurt her terribly.
Does this mean we should feel bad for this man who committed sexual violence? Is he free from agency, guilt, or accountability? No. He most certainly isn’t. But in my understanding of this story, he also isn’t a predator or a sociopath.
Sexual violence happens in a myriad of ways, including the ways described by Lisak & Miller. Those of us who want to end sexual violence and rape culture should be working together and supporting one another in that work so long as that it supports the voices and experiences of survivors and holds men who commit sexual violence accountable for their actions.
A big part of my work is educating young people about healthy communication and consent. I see doing so as having two ends. First, if more people have healthy understandings of relationships and consent, it will be a lot harder for men like those who admit to rape in Lisak & Miller to find cover from sympathetic “friends.” Second, if more people have healthy understandings of relationships and consent, we might just be able to prevent the kinds of sexual violence that were perpetrated against Sabrina and Jeri.
*It pains me to see the ways that this piece and the research that it describes operate so much from a heteronormative gender binary. Despite this, let us not forget that sexual violence is far from an exclusively heterosexual phenomenon (Susan C. Turell, “A Descriptive Analysis of Same-Sex Relationship Violence for a Diverse Sample.” Journal of Family Violence, Vol. 15, No. 3, 200), and there are cis-male perpetrators and survivors, cis-female perpetrators and survivors, trans perpetrators and survivors, and perpetrators and survivors who exist outside of these constructions of gender.